Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tomorrow is another day...

After yesterday, I've been hugely impressed by the attitudes expressed by those organisations who've lost their ACE funding yet have issued statements declaring their determination to carry on with their work. While certain bullish media commentators are desperate to portray them all as that magical invention of the school playground, "whingeing luvvies", I've not spotted a single "whinge" anywhere. There's disappointment, of course, and sometimes incomprehension about some of the decisions - but principally we note fortitude, resourcefulness and gratitude for the support thus far.

These are people who work extremely hard, often for little financial recompense, and commit to their various activities with dogged determination against a sea of ignorant, opposing twatdom. I am especially sorry to see that the brilliant charity Live Music Now is among those whose funding has been wiped out - you'll find their website in my Music Inspirations list, but here it is again. Others include beloved Riverside Studios, Dartington, Lake District Summer Music and the Rose Theatre in Kingston. As for the massive cut to the excellent Almeida Theatre, Norman Lebrecht has theories about this.

There's good news, too: among the big winners has been the Britten Sinfonia, with a massively increased grant that is very well deserved, and several famous early-music orchestras have won funding despite having existed perfectly strongly without it for decades, while the London Mozart Players is out of the picture altogether. (There is an early music enthusiast, or so, on the ACE board, as you'll note if you have a look at Norman's lavish commentary from yesterday.) More news here from the Independent.

It was entertaining to see Jeremy Paxman facing a team of theatrical manager, Tory minister and a highly intelligent scientist on Newsnight yesterday, and finding no dissent amongst them at all over the value to society of public funding for culture and research. The more he pushed the philistine mealymouth view, the more strongly and excellently they reasoned.

My husband still has a job: all the symphony orchestras have taken a roughly equal 11% cut. Many in other sectors of work across the country are less fortunate. As the libretto of Anna Nicole says: "There but for the grace of your deity of choice..." Never think that we don't know this.

As far as the UK's cultural life is concerned, there's much to celebrate. Many creative and resourceful people work in this industry; it's now going to be up to them to find alternative ways forward. The arts here take just a sliver of public funding - notable when you compare it to other departments and see the returns that investment in the arts can bring - and the "mixed model" of funds-gathering - a sort of hedging approach with a bit of public, a bit of private and a lot of commercial nous - is currently proving its worth. It's a bit like freelancing: you're not dependent on any one company for your income, but on many different ones, so it is unlikely that you'll lose the whole lot at once (as I have learned over a sometimes difficult but often rewarding patch of 18 years to date).

And so, as Scarlett O'Hara says, tomorrow is another day. Keep calm and carry on.

A far greater danger than ACE cuts is the tearing up of culture and education by the grass roots, in the shape of university tuition fees and local authority budget-slashing. That is a topic for another time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'National Portfolio Organisations'

Here is the database of the arts organisations across the UK that have become National Portfolio Organisations with ACE funding.

https://spreadsheets.google.com/lv?hl=en&hl=en&key=tNqPxvivkg4P8A27Cy8UqZA&type=view&gid=0&f=true&sortcolid=-1&sortasc=true&page=2&rowsperpage=250

It is only part of the jigsaw puzzle, but quite an important part.

Music While U Wait

The ACE is busy sending those emails even now. Results are filtering through on Twitter with the hashtag #ACEfunding. So far early winners include Tete a Tete Opera and the Manchester International Festival. It's worth pointing out that some organisations that have never received ACE funding before are now getting some - a fact that's been a bit overlooked by many of us - though there will be losers too. The Guardian has rolling updates here and you can set the page to refresh automatically: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/culture-cuts-blog/2011/mar/30/arts-council-funding-decision-day-cuts

Let's have some Bach while we wait. This is the piece that the MD used to play in the office when he was doling out clear-your-desk-right-away redundancies in a company I worked for in 1989. But it wasn't being played like this...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ROBERT TEAR (1939-2011)

Extremely sad this morning to hear about the death of Robert Tear, one of the greatest singers and 'characters' in the British opera world over the past half century. He was 72.


[Update, Tuesday 29th, 6.45pm A Telegraph obituary is now up on site here]

I've been listening to Bob singing for as long as I can remember, but certain occasions stand out as utterly unforgettable. His Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw can scarcely have been bettered: while his presence could emanate sinister power almost effortlessly, the beauty of his voice gave the character its essential extra dimension of seductiveness. At the opposite end of the spectrum, he was in Glyndebourne's Die Fledermaus a few years ago singing Dr Falke the lawyer - a production which included a little coup-de-theatre in the last act when Falke's cloak was pulled off him, abruptly revealing that he was wearing a petticoat. "What's that?" bellowed Eisenstein. The reply: "It's my Freudian slip!" And at the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane at the RFH in 2007, Bob sang the short role of the Blind Judge. His was the finest voice on the platform.

It was on that occasion that I met him for the first time. I'd just been in France for the premiere of my play about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; Bob became very interested since he had known Messiaen well and worked with him. He said that he was winding down his singing career (and his last operatic appearance was in Turandot at the ROH two years ago), but was still interested in performing as an actor or reader. The upshot was that he and I gave the UK premiere of the play together at Lake District Summer Music 2008, in the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.

It was astonishing to be on stage with him. The stage is not my natural environment and appearing alongside such a legend is a tall order. But he was such a strong, reassuring, comforting presence - able to inhabit a role so entirely, even when simply reading - that I was able to "lose myself", forget nerves and respond with all I could muster. With his wife, Hilary, and our team of musicians including Charles Owen and Philippe Graffin, we had a ball in the festival, too, huddling together for warmth in Lake District pubs and watching the rain...

Bob was not just a great singer, but a Renaissance man, fascinated by literature, art and issues mystical. His favourite pastime seemed, indeed, to be painting and he also wrote some amazing texts, short stories which I was privileged to read; his poetry also featured in a Christmas carol, 'Winter's Wait', which was performed at King's College Cambridge last year. He was a vivacious and irrepressible dinner guest, regaling us with hilarious stories from his time as a larger-than-life figure in a larger-than-life profession; and his West London home seemed to buzz with the spirits of all the creative powerhouses who had passed through its portals over the years.

I phoned him just before Christmas to ask whether he would be interested in doing another reading of the play this spring. He told me he wasn't taking on any more work of any kind and mentioned that he hadn't been very well, but if this was in fact a serious illness he gave no indication of the fact. My thoughts today are very much with Hilary and their two daughters.

Here is some Youtube of him singing the composer with whom so many of us associated him more than any other: Benjamin Britten. This is from the Glyndebourne Touring Opera's production of Death in Venice.



And here is his official biography from his agent's website.


Robert Tear was born and educated in Wales, and became a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge.  Throughout his career he has shown his versatility and great talent as one of  the world's leading tenors and has worked with many eminent conductors.
He has appeared at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on a regular basis since his debut in l970. In 1988/89 he made his debut with English National Opera in The Turn of the Screw and the following season included his highly successful debut as Aschenbach in Death in Venice with the Glyndebourne Touring Company, later filmed by BBC TV.
Robert Tear has worked on many television projects, including the Jeunesses Musicales’ War Requiem performances in East and West Berlin to celebrate the City's 750th Anniversary in l987,   and more recently, a performance at the Wigmore Hall in which he performed Britten Song Cycles and Out of Winter by Jonathan Dove to Robert’s own texts.

He has made well over 250 records for every major recording company, including Bach Cantatas, numerous recital records, Victorian ballads with his friends Benjamin Luxon and André Previn, Britten's Serenade and Nocturne with Giulini for DG, and all the major choral works. Other recordings include Britten's War Requiem, Mahler's Das Klagende Lied, both with Sir Simon Rattle, Die Winterreise with Philip Ledger, and the first recording of Schoenberg's arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde for BMG Records with Mark Wigglesworth and The Premiere Ensemble. His recording of Dyson's The Canterbury Pilgrims with the LSO and Hickox for Chandos was released in 1997.
In 1985 Robert Tear made his US conducting debut in Minneapolis and has subsequently worked with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, London Mozart Players, Northern Sinfonia, English Chamber Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Toulouse Chamber Orchestra, Tapiola Sinfonietta and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Recent opera performances have included Opera National de Paris Bastille (Marriage of Figaro), Los Angeles Opera (Tales of Hoffmann), the Royal Opera House (Falstaff & The Bartered Bride), Welsh National Opera (Eugene Onegin), Bayerische Staatsoper (Saul), English National Opera (Sir John in Love) and Glyndebourne (Die Fledermaus). In early 2009 Robert made his final singing performance at the Royal Opera House as Altuom in Turandot.
Robert is in increasing demand as a speaker/narrator. He has most recently read a selection of Mozart’s letters accompanied by music at Kings Place, and Stravinksy’s A Soldier’s Tale with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Wigmore Hall.
Robert Tear is married with two daughters and lives in West London. From 1992-94 he was Artistic Director of the Vocal Faculty of the London Royal Schools of Music, and he is currently a visiting professor of Opera at the Royal Academy of Music. He is an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and in l984 was awarded the C.B.E.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just the beginning...

Does the UK government have the first clue about what it's doing? Less than a year since the coalition came to power and they're already being told by their own select committee that decisions they made a few months ago were poor - something the public spotted right away when the UK Film Council was turned into a clay pigeon and shot down. Now they want the ACE to slash another 50% of its own operating costs and are making noises about not being 'convinced' that so many subsidised orchestras are needed. Yet so many of the comments, as reported today, are self-contradictory, confused or oddly timed that the incoherence and anxiety that lie beneath are clearly visible. You can read the whole Select Committee Report yourself, here.

..."Arts industry insiders believe the timing of the report is designed to damage the council and deflect negative reaction to the forthcoming announcement away from the Government."... (The Independent) (Read the rest here.) 
..."The committee also said it was not convinced there was a need for so many symphony orchestras to receive funding from the council and the BBC; claimed heritage had been underfunded compared with the arts; and expressed concern at the deep level of cuts to funding for culture proposed by some local councils.

The arts world is waiting anxiously for the results of public funding applications, which are due to drop into email inboxes up and down England between 7.30am and 9.30am on Wednesday. Grant applications have been made by 1,300 organisations; almost half will be unsuccessful....  (The Guardian)" (Read the rest here)
Feeling sick already? We ain't seen nothing yet. I'm not saying the status quo was perfect - yes, there's a serious deficit, and yes, there was a world financial crisis. There has to be a way to save money. But it has to be a competent, considered, sensible way and we have yet to see anything that suggests the current administration is capable of this; or that there is an electable alternative that could be any better. The sense of lunatics running the asylum has rarely been stronger; today, after all we've seen taking place in the US, persistent clinging to belief in the free market as the answer to all the world's problems seems staggeringly naive at best and, at worst, plain stupid. In one word: Detroit.


It's the apparently hasty and ill-considered way in which decisions like the abolition of the Film Council and the PLR (public lending rights) distributing agency were forced through that seems most dubious. The report says the following re PLR:
147. We are surprised at the Government's decision to abolish the PLR body and disappointed that DCMS did not discuss the future of the PLR with its Registrar before announcing its abolition. It follows the same disturbingmodus operandi as with the other bodies, including the UK Film Council. We have not found anyone who supports this decision. Any proposal that the Arts Council should take over the PLR was unrealistic and rightly abandoned. However, this has left the PLR in a state of protracted uncertainty, which could have been avoided had the department discussed proposals with the PLR sooner.
148. We do not believe that the British Library is an appropriate body to take on the work of administering the PLR. Far more appropriate is the ALCS, which already distributes royalty payments to authors. We understand that there may be a legal technicality preventing this, in which case we recommend that legislative measures are put in place to allow it to happen as soon as possible.
NB "WE HAVE NOT FOUND ANYONE WHO SUPPORTS THIS DECISION"


Meanwhile in academia, ideology-driven policies that bear little relation to reality are taking hold too...have a dekko at this weirdly Stalinist requirement, reported yesterday, that humanities research at university level will be required to study 'the Big Society', something that I hope profoundly might have been misinterpreted or misquoted or at least mis-something. Here are David Lodge's thoughts on the university situation.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

26 March: A few thoughts about cuts

[RANT ALERT. IF YOU DON'T LIKE RANTS, SURF AWAY NOW. IF YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT THE FUTURE OF MUSIC EDUCATION IN BRITAIN, READ ON.]


This afternoon, London sees the March for the Alternative - the biggest mass protest to hit the capital's streets since the Stop the War Coalition March in 2003. Various newspapers are predicting between 100,000 and 300,000 participants and the NUT has chartered trains from around the country in order to join in. Here are thoughts from a cross-section of people planning to march today.

A couple of months ago, after Philip Pullman and other authors spoke out with eloquence and passion against the closure of public libraries, I ran a post on JDCMB calling for star musicians to speak up too. And several promptly got in touch with words to the effect of: "Yes, anytime!" But... everyone was waiting for Darren Henley's report into the state of music education and for the government's response. These arrived very late.

When they turned up, they seemed good. Henley made some excellent recommendations and the response appeared to take them on board. Michael Gove seems to like music, and noises were even made about ringfencing certain bits of money for music education. It seemed, at first glance, that there wasn't all that much to yell about.

But on closer examination, this doesn't reflect what's actually been happening while we waited. There's a dangerous division between the national, centralised government recommendations and the individual responses of local authorities hard hit by budget cuts. At times the two situations bear no relation whatsoever to one another. Local authorities, in charge of their own budgets for everything from refuse collection to care for the elderly to music teaching, could not afford the time to wait for the report, let alone act according to it. Up and down the country, music services have already been slashed by councils desperate to save money wherever they can; and because of the division in national plans and local realities, it seems hard to get the message through about what is really happening.

The same, of course, is true for professional musical organisations: many regional orchestras, for instance, depend on local funding as well as ACE grants and are facing a double whammy of cutbacks in both. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, for instance - a fabulous orchestra and host to Vassily Petrenko, possibly the most exciting young conductor to hold a post in this country - is being rewarded for its runaway success and massive increases in its audience by something resembling a financial brickbat. The CBSO too is facing a serious cut, but seem glad it isn't even bigger.

The lack of clarity about the national and local divisions in these issues has, I think, caused a heap of confusion and made it difficult for the public to recognise what's happening. I am sure there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who could suggest that this sense of muddle might even be deliberately imposed from somewhere high up the tree. Personally I tend to subscribe to 'cock-up' theories rather than 'conspiracy'. I suspect that in the diplodocus of bureaucracy, the head hasn't a clue what the tail is doing, so great is the distance between them.

Yesterday Tom Service reported on his Guardian blog about the response of Bedfordshire: soaring costs for music lessons that far exceed the recommended fees suggested as market rate by the Musicians Union. And a well-known musician in Yorkshire has written to me, forwarding a message from a concerned local about the slashing of music provision to the effect of: "Why isn't anyone saying anything about this?" Music-making in the UK should never be reduced to a pursuit barred to those who cannot afford exorbitant fees for lessons.

If children do not hear music, they will not know that it exists. And they are missing out. In assuming they won't be interested in western classical music because it isn't "cool" (that word is a plague on all our houses), and in failing to teach them to appreciate it, play it and understand it, we are subjecting them to a deprivation of spirit. We're treating our youngsters with patronising assumptions for which they're going to come back to us one day, when we're doddering around taking out our dentures, and say WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL US?

A challenge for you: this week, play a young person some music. Choose it well, answer their questions, offer follow-up suggestions. Last week, as part of a writing workshop, I played a group of eight A and AS level students some Keith Jarrett. One boy in particular was crazy about it. He said he had never heard any jazz before. A month ago I took my niece to see Madam Butterfly at the Albert Hall. She is a bright university student and comes from an academic family full of people who appreciate music, yet she'd never heard a note of this opera before. She loved it.

Young people deserve the chance to find an enthusiasm and make up their own minds about music: how dare we assume they won't like it? If you don't play them music, if you don't show them what is available for them to enjoy, if you do not teach them how it works and equip them with the vocabulary to understand it, explore it and talk about it, you are killing part of our collective soul and theirs.

Perhaps even more worrying is this: as regards the benefits that music brings all round, the case has been made. The points have been proved, the evidence is there and it has been hammered home. EL SISTEMA. Sistema Scotland and the Big Noise. Buskaid, Soweto. What more proof do we need that music-making is a force for good, a shortcut to all-round improvement to spiritual, mental, physical and social health, the provision of it a financial stitch in time? The case has been made, and proven, and unarguably so. But how do we get anyone to listen? What more do we have to do?

Enough hanging around! If we wait any longer, it will be too late. I think we've all been too patient and way too nice. Music teachers, get out there in central London today and do some shouting.

Now, dear musician friends, if you would like to send me any words of protest against the bureaucracy-sponsored suffocation of music lessons, as well as exhortations about the human value of music, I will post them here with the greatest of pleasure.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hungry for Hungary, plus a suitable Friday Historical

I'm back from the mini-tour of Hungarian Dances. This week the three of us went to Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge, which made us welcome with a winning combination of warm atmosphere, enthusiasm and, by no means least, school dinners complete with apple crumble and custard. Bradley and Margaret pulled out all the stops that can be found on violin and piano, the story seemed to go over well and the continuity gelled: the ideal for these concerts is that music and words should become a gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, a goal that is beginning to feel not just possible but natural. The sophisticated and substantial cutlet of the Debussy Violin Sonata is the perfect foil for the Gypsy numbers and balances the Ravel Tzigane in the second half. And Bradley's Gypsy-style playing really has to be seen to be believed, and I'm not just saying it because it was my book. The Northern Sinfonia is a lucky old orchestra to have him at the helm. 

The next day we all gave workshops for the kids and I managed to introduce my creative writing group to Keith Jarrett's The Koln Concert in the process. We have an exercise in which I suggest that music can provide a route into the stillness of mental space from which focused creativity can spring, but which is sorely lacking in modern life, especially if you're facing a heap of exams. I put on something suitably calming - here's where The Koln Concert works beautifully, but in the past I've also used Chopin (slow movement of B minor Sonata) - and treat it as a meditation, in which the music leads the pen. Some people respond more enthusiastically than others, of course, but it is just one example of an option that can be harnessed to help access that space in ourselves. And just occasionally, someone will produce something in the music exercise that is rather incredible... This group was no exception and I think KJ would have been pleased to think he'd sparked such interesting thoughts and reflections. 

Meanwhile the voice coaching sessions I had a few years ago have proved their worth. I love rediscovering that fabulous "afterglow" sensation where you're on a total high after giving a really good concert - and without having to play a note! HA! Still, Bradley and Margaret play enough notes for seven, never mind three... The whole thing has been fantastic, dreamlike and showered with spring sun and daffodils galore. THANKS, FOLKS!

And so it's home and back to the hamster-wheel. And it's Friday. So here is Jelly d'Aranyi playing a Hungarian piece we don't have in the concert: Hubay's Poemes hongroises, Op.26 No.6. This should put a spring in everyone's step.






Monday, March 21, 2011

Liszt gets his own airport

Amid all the current world horrors, there's one shred that can cause us musos to smile: "Liszt Ferenc" is getting his own airport. Hungary is renaming Budapest aiport after him in honour of his 200th birthday. Nice one, folks, and I'm sure that were he alive today, Liszt would have travelled by private jet. I hope we can look forward to Aeroport Claude Debussy in France (new name for Roissy, perhaps?) next year; a good big Italian job for Giuseppe Verdi in 2013; and for that other great 200th anniversary in 2013 maybe somewhere in Bavaria could go for...ah, all right, maybe not... Come 2057, will Heathrow become Edward Elgar Airport? Unlikely. The oil will probably have run out by then.

Speaking of Hungary, our Hungarian Dances concert at Potton Hall in Suffolk the other day was huge fun. Concert environments do make a difference: Potton Hall, a converted barn, not only has wonderful acoustics and perfect tranquility, but with its glowing golden wood, vaulted roof and warmth of atmosphere it just begs to be "performed in". Next concert tomorrow night at Old Swinford Hospital School, Stourbridge. (We are open to bookings, btw- drop me a line for details anytime...). Left, a pic from the green room at Potton Hall: muggins, Bradley Creswick (violin), Margaret Fingerhut (piano).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Striggio goes biggio

So what's a Renaissance mass that has been lost for four centuries doing in the pop charts? Here's my thought for the day in the Indy. 

Off to Potton Hall, Suffolk, in an hour or so for the Hungarian Dances concert tonight with Bradley Creswick & Margaret Fingerhut. Next one is on Tuesday at Old Swinford Hospital School, Stourbridge.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Meet Emanuel Ax

"Manny" Ax is possibly the most self-effacing, unassuming, clear-headed, down-to-earth bloke who ever set finger to Steinway. I more or less had to be his wake-up call for his plane that morning, but he talked at crack-of-dawn anyway. Now he's in town for a concert with the LPO playing Haydn and Stravinsky tomorrow night at the RFH, and a Wigmore Hall Coffee Concert on Sunday morning. (It's time the hall was honest, though, and started calling them Sherry Concerts instead.)

Here he is playing Brahms:


"On the professional side of music, I've never seen anything like the level of accomplishment the young players have now," he says. "It's mind-boggling. There was never a time before when almost every professional pianist was capable of playing the complete Chopin etudes. The profession is in great shape.
"But on the listening side, we have more problems because fewer people play instruments for fun - that's very sad. There's a separation between the professional and the amateur and I think that's not so healthy. The issue is that it's not easy to play an instrument: it takes a certain amount of effort, application and daily practice. And there are so many choices for kids now, especially with good music being readily available without having to learn to play it. I hope the musical community will be interested in pushing the idea of playing instruments. That, I think, is the secret to everything. It's like sports: if you don't kick a ball around, you probably won't go to football matches. A lot of people do care about this situation and are working to change it. Yo-Yo is incredibly involved. Simon Rattle is another great advocate. I'm sure they will have an effect. They are leading the way towards a whole new vision of what a musician should be."

Read the full interview in this week's Jewish Chronicle, just out now. 

In solidarity

It is pretty much impossible to find an appropriate musical response to the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear danger. Music-ish friends, caught up in Tokyo, have largely got out now - the BBC Philharmonic is home safe and sound (tearful scenes reported at the airport) and Japanese orchestras pressed on with their own concerts despite depleted audiences, determined to keep going. Pianist Noriko Ogawa is in Tokyo and was drafted in for an interview on BBC Newsnight yesterday to talk about the ongoing mood: the chief message is clearly a determination on everyone's part to stay calm and continue with life as normally as possible.

As for Libya, while the various international councils argue amongst themselves over what, if anything, to do, Gaddafi's forces seem to be moving in on Benghazi and a hint of horrors unfolding in Bahrain is being masked because, one assumes, there isn't enough time to do Japan, Libya and Bahrain all at once, especially not when Prince William is visiting New Zealand and the aftermath of its earthquake in Christchurch. This is dangerous - personally I'd just like to remind people that in 1956 Russia was able to quash the uprising in Hungary not least because the world was looking the other way, towards Suez.

Update: Stephen Llewellyn of Portland Opera has posted a Youtube message from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic's concertmaster in Japanese, expressing solidarity and moral support to the people of Japan. http://www.portlandopera.org/blog/operaman/2011/03/16/ongoing-tragedy-japan

News now in that the Berlin Phil's concert with Bernard Haitink and Leif Ove Andsnes performing Lutoslawski and Brahms tomorrow night, available by webcast at their Digital Concert Hall, will be dedicated to the victims of the Japan tragedy: http://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/1637

Meanwhile, Norman Lebrecht heard that Andre Previn was to conduct the NHK orchestra in a concert in Montreal and asked for an interview. Previn refused (as he usually does - I've never once managed to get him to agree to an interview about anything, not even Korngold). Slipped Disc was not amused.  Norman also reports that the Czech government airlifted the Czech Philharmonic out of Japan and Florence's Maggio Musicale orchestra has somehow managed to get back to Italy. Dusseldorf, where there's a large ex-pat Japanese community, is having a solidarity concert and John Zorn is leading a benefit concert in New York.

Another update: violinist Anne Akiko Meyers has written a blogpost about her visit to Osaka and includes links to relief efforts/donation sites. http://anneakikomeyers.com/blog/?p=239

I've been hunting for something that shows at least some sort of empathy and solidarity, as far as we can imagine the unimaginable. Here, with the best of intentions, is Jonas Kaufmann singing Florestan's aria from Fidelio.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yakov Kreizberg (1959-2011)

The music world is mourning the death yesterday of the conductor Yakov Kreizberg, who has died at the age of only 51. Here is the statement from his manager, Linda Marks of Harrison Parrott:


It is with deep sorrow that we must announce the passing of conductor Yakov Kreizberg on 15 March 2011. He died peacefully after a long illness – borne with great courage, fortitude and determination – at his home in Monte Carlo, surrounded by his wife and two sons. He was aged only 51.
Yakov Kreizberg was one of the most interesting and exciting conductors of his generation. He was widely sought-after by the world's leading orchestras, and held posts with the Theater Krefeld Mönchengladbach, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the Komische Oper in Berlin and the Wiener Symphoniker.
At the time of his death he was the Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Netherlands Philharmonic and Netherlands Chamber Orchestras. He led them on many highly successful tours and leaves behind a number of great recordings.
He conducted his very last concert with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra on 14 February 2011 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The programme consisted of Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2 with soloist Alexander Sitkovetsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  
Yakov Kreizberg was appointed Artistic Director of L'Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo in January 2008, and subsequently Artistic Director and Music Director in September 2009. Although his time with them was cut short, his relationship with this orchestra was one of the happiest and most rewarding of his career.
Yakov Kreizberg was one of the kindest, thoughtful and considerate artists I knew and it was a great privilege to work for him. He leaves behind a tremendous gap in the music world and we send our sincere condolences to his family.
I had always hoped to meet Yakov Kreizberg, having much enjoyed his performances, but the opportunity never arose. I had not realised - none of us had - that time was going to run out quite so soon. His death yesterday coincides with the anniversary of my sister's death at the age of 45. Here is some Mozart in tribute to both of them: Kreizberg conducts his frequent musical collaborator, violinist Julia Fischer, and violinist (here on the viola) Gordan Nikolic with the Netherlands Philharmonic as they record the Sinfonia Concertante - a performance that could scarcely be more positive, filled with light and love.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Big Fat Gypsy Violin!

Forget "Gypsy" weddings, just hear the music... Meet the magical Magyar melodies and their impact in my feature in today's Independent, which was kind enough to let me add details of our Hungarian Dances concerts next week. 18 March, Potton Hall, Suffolk; and 22 March, Old Swinford Hospital School, Stourbridge. Do come and join us!

It's Friday, so here's Jascha Heifetz in Dohnanyi's Andante rubato alla Zingaresca, with pictures to match. This unbelievably beautiful piece is the first number in our concert: to me it's the perfect incarnation of the 'lost Gypsy concerto' straight out of the novel. This recording was made in 1943.

At that point, the Roma of Nazi-controlled European countries were undergoing the same fate as the Jews, being rounded up and herded into concentration camps, and indeed one section of Auschwitz was designated for them. But in August 1944, after the invasion of Hungary, a new contingent of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews was brought to the camp. There was not enough room for them, so the Nazis decided to make room. They slaughtered the Roma inmates in one night.

I've run this tribute video before, but several years ago. We should see it again. We shouldn't forget what happened to them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Meet Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Here's my piece from the JC about the amazing cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, who is bringing a series of three varied and fascinating concerts to Kings Place next week. The article is about the first concert, Chants Juifs, but the programmes pairing Monteverdi and Scelsi with a dose of magical realism (Vita, just out on disc too) and Chants d'Est - cello music and transcriptions from around central and eastern Europe - promise to be every bit as intriguing. I will be doing an open interview with Sonia at the Institut Francais in South Kensington on Tuesday 15 March. Do come along and join in.

Here she is talking about Chants d'Est and playing extracts from the album. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

No Brits, please, we're a music competition

Yesterday I received the list of competitors accepted for the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It is taking place later this year and features pianists, violinists, cellists and singers. In no category is there a single British musician on the list.

First of all, it's sad. In the past, British musicians - well, British pianists - have enjoyed an almost bizarre record of success at this contest. John Ogdon, John Lill, Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas (if he doesn't mind me including him - he's from Belfast) and Freddy Kempff have all shot to fame under its auspices, either by winning or by not winning, but at any rate, by reaching the final and attracting a strong, healthy following among the audience. But all of these were a good while ago. So what's happened?

It's easy to fall back on the old chestnuts. Eg, the malaise in British attitude towards music, musicians and training. When we come up against competitors from places with better systems, we're nowhere. Our kids don't start learning instruments young enough. We have no consistent network of free music schools. As for the Associated Board exams, don't get me started. Music for British kids: a nice pursuit for amateurs or an extra line on the CV, or a way to get cheaper private education. And it's just not done in Britain to be really, seriously, superlatively good at music or, indeed, very much else.

But - is it us or them? Norman Lebrecht has some dubious news from the cello section today. Furthermore, we could ask why our top British young pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, 18, is not taking part. Could it be that he, or any other thrilling young musicians in Britain, did not even think of applying? Could it be that they would prefer not to touch any competition with the proverbial barge pole? Benjamin is on the BBC New Generation Artists scheme; he's been featured on the Imagine series on TV (when he was 11) and his first CD This and That, produced originally for a music club rather than a major label, drew gasps of wonder from the critics that many older musicians would sort of give their right hand for. But it would be no wonder if gifted youngsters today were to look at the workings of music competitions and decide it is just not worth putting themselves through all that.

I asked Valery Gergiev a little about his chairmanship of the Tchaikovsky Competition when we met last month. Here is what he said - direct quote from my transcript.
JD: ...there can be a perception amongst young musicians that competitions are in some way "fixed"...
VG: Oh no - the screening jury has certainly less Russian - there are very, very good professionals representing Europe, America, Asia and Russia, but absolutely no way will it be a competition between two professors of the Moscow Conservatory, definitely not. I am making a statement because I have a lot to lose myself if things go wrong and while I am there it will not happen. But the screening jury is working already and there’s a wonderful talent coming from all over Europe, Asia and America, so they mustn’t worry.
The proof, I guess, will be in the poppyseed cake. Meanwhile, there are musicians out in the big wide world enjoying lavish careers after winning top competitions, yet whose musicianship, IMHO, is shallow, limited, dull, self-obsessed and sometimes kind of unpleasant. They can certainly play all the notes and audiences insist on flocking to hear them. But all you have to do is put on a recording of Cortot or Lipatti alongside one of theirs and note the contrast. Please, Valery, make sure they get it right this time. And meanwhile, why don't you pop along and hear some of Benjamin's next concerts?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Hello, Moscow, this is RICHMOND-ON-THAMES!

Don't ask me how Ivan Vasiliev did that. Don't ask me, either, what it was he did, because I don't know. I'm not sure it has a name. It takes place at a height of about eight foot and goes about the speed of a Roger Federer ace. He leaps, spins and does something else at the same time involving feet, legs, arms, and it's over before you believe he really did it or that you really saw it. With the Bolshoi Ballet around, who needs the Olympics? I fear I squawked aloud.

This happened yesterday in that most genteel of surroundings, the Curzon Cinema in Richmond, Surrey. It wasn't well populated - not much more than half full - and my theatrical pals and I were among the younger members of the audience. I wouldn't have known about it, indeed, if Brian the Ballet Teacher hadn't addressed class on Friday with the words: "Now, there's a live cinecast of Don Quixote from the Bolshoi starring Osipova and Vasiliev on Sunday at 4pm and I expect you all to attend!" Ballet cinecasts have passed me by thus far, mostly because I didn't know they were happening until they were over. Hey, Richmond - did you know you can see the Bolshoi almost as good as live, on a big screen, in a comfy cinema chair, sipping your coffee when you like, watching the greatest dancers in the whole damn world for £15, on your own doorstep?!? No, I didn't think you did.

This performance was being watched by friends in central London, Australia, Denmark, France, Germany and, I think, Canada. All we need now is one of those live link-ups, routinely employed for the Eurovision Song Contest and Proms in the Park, where you can shout "Hello, Moscow! This is Richmond-on-Thames!"

It's not quite the same as being there, of course; the Bolshoi applauds, but we don't, because they can't hear us and that takes the edge off slightly. But you can see everything, hear everything - the orchestra is phenomenal, even if they have to play dear old Minkus - and you're treated to glimpses backstage before and after each act, while the happy Russian hostess interviews interesting Bolshoi-ish people - the discussion of the character dancing in the Tavern scene and Gypsy scene was fascinating if only because here in sunny London such discussions are reserved for exceedingly esoteric dance journals and would probably by-pass any outreach project by going clean over everyone's head. I do love the Russian attitude. Taking it for granted that these issues are of mass interest worldwide goes part of the way to explaining how they get to be so good at the performing arts.

As for the performance itself - it really was amazing. Don Quixote is a great party piece for a fantastic company, a Spanishy kitschy bonanza of virtuoso bedazzlement in bright colours complete with fancy flamenco robes, Gypsies doing mystic fire with Hungarian-style music (we did get the giggles when she threw the guitar over her shoulder, though - my friend being married to a guitarist...). Osipova matches Vasiliev almost move for move, leaping higher, twirling faster and sizzling more hotly than any rival could hope to touch. As a pair, they're absolutely on fire, bowling out personality, a hungry, adrenaline-high glow in their eyes. Someone complained to me recently that classical ballet is anti-feminist because it seeks to keep women as virgins forever. Er, nnooo...

The music goes on a bit, but has its moments. There's one really beautiful piece in the sultry Spanish tavern scene, the dance featuring unbelievable backbends (so that's what Brian the Ballet Teacher means when he says "...and now a beautiful Bolshoi backbend" and we all try to shift our shoulders an inch or two). But it turned out to be by Gliere, not Minkus. And the end of the show is rather abrupt - but after the grand pas de deux, what more is there to say?

The staging also features, for the Don and Sancho Panza, a white stallion and a donkey. Donkey Hotey?

Here's a taster. This isn't from yesterday - but you get the general idea.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Daniel Hope & the Missing Link

The Missing Link is Joseph Joachim, lynchpin of the split in Romantic music that made everyone go a bit Brahms and Liszt. Daniel Hope has been delving into the influence of this legendary violinist and I recently had a lovely interview with him about it. A somewhat truncated version is in today's Indy, which does make it clear that if Brahms hadn't nodded off at a crucial moment, the whole history of music might have been different... Below please find the Director's Cut - complete with some Youtube of the great Joachim himself, who lived just long enough to make a few short recordings...



He’s the missing link of musical Romanticism: a man of uncompromising ideals, the greatest violinist of his day and an accomplished composer. Yet today Joseph Joachim is barely remembered. Because he was more famous as a performer than as a creator, he has slipped behind his closest friends in terms of repute. And since those friends included Robert and Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn and -- for a while -- Franz Liszt, perhaps it’s no wonder.

Now, though, the British violinist Daniel Hope (right) is setting out to restore Joachim to his rightful place as the lynchpin of music-making in the Romantic era, with a new CD entitled The Romantic Violin. And it’s not a moment too soon, for some of the 19th century’s crucial musical developments revolved around this extraordinary, and extraordinarily cantankerous, artist.

The idea, Hope says, has been bubbling away for years. Joachim (1831-1907) lived long enough to make a few gramophone records towards the end of his life; Hope’s fascination began when he heard those recordings as a child. “By then he wasn’t in his heyday, but there was something very distinct about his sound,” says Hope. “His exceptionally pure tone always intrigued me.”

He found that Joachim’s name “just kept popping up” as dedicatee of countless works, including the Brahms Violin Concerto and pieces by both the Schumanns. As he learned more, Hope was “amazed by the breadth of talent Joachim had, not just in playing the violin but in forging new approaches in musical expression, making new programmes, rediscovering the Beethoven Violin Concerto. He was tremendously interested in poetry, the arts, humanity in general, and he embodied the Romantic spirit more than any other violinist.”

As a child prodigy, the young Joachim was dandled, metaphorically, on the musical lap of Mendelssohn, who was not only his mentor but conducted a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in which Joachim, aged 13, was the soloist. “Without that performance, the concerto might have disappeared,” says Hope. “Until then, violinists had treated it as little more than an exercise. But Joachim played the music as he felt it. It must have been a complete revelation.”

Liszt, then honorary kapellmeister to the court in Weimar, persuaded the still teenaged violinist to become leader of his orchestra in 1848. There Joachim joined Liszt’s group of young disciples for several years. But another friendship soon came about which altered matters considerably: that with Johannes Brahms, two years Joachim’s junior.

It was Joachim who famously provided the 20-year-old Brahms with a letter of introduction to Robert and Clara Schumann, a meeting that profoundly affected the course of Brahms’s life and music. But just before that, Brahms went to see Joachim and Liszt in Weimar. This had a different result, equally lasting. When Liszt played his B minor Sonata to his assembled students, Brahms made a crucial faux pas: he fell asleep. His lack of sympathy with Liszt’s style was a sign of things to come.

What ensued later was the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’, which split the aesthetic of new music in Europe into two separate directions. In one camp were Liszt, Wagner and their followers, determined to create “the music of the future”, shaking up old preconceptions about style, harmony and structure; in the other camp, Brahms, Joachim and Clara Schumann, among others, deplored such iconoclasm and showiness.

But it was largely due to Joachim that the split became unreasonably vitriolic. A letter he wrote to the generous Liszt in 1857, refusing his invitation to perform in a festival in Weimar, simply beggars belief:

“Your music is entirely antagonistic to me,” he wrote. “It contradicts everything with which the spirits of our great ones have nourished my mind from my earliest youth. If it were thinkable that…I should ever have to renounce all that I learnt to love and honour in their creations, all that I feel music to be, your strains would not fill one corner of the vast waste of nothingness…”

Joachim thus ratched up the heat of the ongoing arguments and set the tone for much of what followed from the likes of Wagner himself and (on the side of Joachim and Brahms) the notorious critic Eduard Hanslick. But why was he so bitter?

It could be that the crux was Joachim’s own longing to be a finer composer than he was. Two of his most beautiful works feature on Hope’s CD, but alongside his friends, his music pales by comparison and he would have been the first to admit it. Perhaps because of that inward disappointment, he was a tortured soul.

His letters often reflect the dark side of his nature: he possessed the capacity for hyper-criticism of his nearest and dearest that often goes with great sensitivity and perceptiveness. For instance, despite his closeness to Brahms he would not demur from describing him as ‘egotism itself’ to a friend. His marriage to the singer Amalie Schneeweiss ended in acrimonious divorce (a rare decision in those times); that in turn sparked a serious fallout with Brahms.

But it was the Liszt incident that changed the future of music. “If Joachim had not split with Liszt,” says Hope, “the Liszt Violin Concerto would not have been forgotten; and there might have been one by Wagner. Instead, we have Brahms, Schumann, Dvorák, Bruch…”

Nothing wrong with those, of course; and Joachim’s input requires attention, especially for Bruch’s Concerto No.1, which opens Hope’s CD. “In its first version the concerto wasn’t a success,” Hope says. “Bruch then enlisted Joachim’s help, because with his fame and his ability he could save pieces. Sure enough, he revised it radically.” The concerto partly owes its popularity to Joachim’s rewrites. “And in terms of German Romantic sensibility, it reaches a zone beyond any of the others.”

Joachim’s attitude to Romanticism was quite unlike our general notion of it today, which is closer to that of Liszt and Wagner. “It’s interesting that Joachim was the violinist whose tone was the purest,” says Hope. “It’s like listening pure emotion. Other violinists who recorded around the same time couldn’t sound more different -- perfumed, beautiful, fantastic playing, but showy. That is how Romanticism, as we define it, happened; but it has little to do with what the Romantic movement was really about.”

The CD, Hope says, is the starting point for many of his concert programmes and projects this year. He is never less than snowed under: shortly his third book, Toi Toi Toi, is being released -- “a chronicle of musical superstitions and disasters, including my own,” he says -- and he’s about to assume a new festival directorship in Mecklenburg, Germany. That makes it all the more impressive that he’s spending so much time and effort focusing attention on Joachim. Stand by for some seriously amazing music-making. The CD is out tomorrow.

Here is Joachim himself in the Bach G minor Adagio, recorded in 1904. An ultimate Friday Historical.





Thursday, March 03, 2011

On the way to 'Let Me In'

No, not the vampire movie. We came up with the title well before posters for the horror film hit the London Tube. Our Let Me In is a wee bit different from that. It will be premiered by the magnificent choir Chanticleer in California on 26 March and given a number of performances in the environs during the ensuing week. It's an a cappella choral piece by Roxanna Panufnik, one of three new works commissioned from different composers by the American choir for a project based on episodes in the life of Jesus. They'll perform them alongside existing music by Part, Gorecki and Mason Bates. And if you're wondering how a nice Jewish girl who likes Richard Dawkins and scribbles for the JC ends up doing the words, read on...

When Rox (who's Roman Catholic) asked me for a poem to set, I think my first words were "You do know I'm a Jewish atheist, don't you?" Of course she did - we've been great friends for more years than I'd care to state - but the human element of the story was, she felt, more important than the faith. Having selected the childhood of Jesus as her patch, she'd read the Gnostic Gospels (I wanted to know if there were some Agnostic ones too) and settled on a story in which the boy Jesus meets a grieving mother whose child has died. He resurrects the baby. As a mum of three, Rox was deeply drawn to the emotions of this tale. And she was well aware that I know more than I'd have liked to know about bereavement.

The project soon turned into one of those creative onions in which you peel off one layer only to find ten more with ever-stronger flavours underneath. I suggested that we set the narrative in the early Jewish community in which the Gnostic Gospels suggest it could have taken place (eg, in one of the other stories, to which we make passing reference, our lad is told off for making clay birds on the Sabbath).

I filled the first part of the poem with imagery from the traditional rituals of Jewish mourning: the covered mirrors, the torn robes, etc. But the twist is that the mother is nearly losing her mind in her grief and won't allow anyone into the house to sit with her. A boy appears outside, calling: "Let me in!" The crowd are suspicious: they have heard frightening stories of this child's uncanny powers. But so has the mother: she opens the door, recognising he is the one person who could help her. He does. The baby is returned to life. Amid general jubilation, the boy slips away unnoticed.

But how to depict the background in the music? Rox wrote to the marvellous Professor Alex Knapp, expert on Jewish traditional music, who talked us through early settings of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. We visited Jackie, a cantor in North London, who offered even more detail on the topic and sang some to us, her voice carrying exactly the focus of spiritual energy that I think Rox was hoping to find in these powerful chants. The earliest version that could be traced was a Yemenite melody infused with a rawness and intensity that grabbed us both by the innards. This Kaddish runs through the first part of the piece.

So far I've heard Let Me In only on Rox's Sibelius computer, but on first listening I was bowled over by the emotional oomph in her harmonies and the way the vocal lines rise up through the keening pulsation of the texture, rather like trying to find one's way through a forest of exotic plants. It's a story to be told - but also to be felt in the gut. Rox has just been appointed as the London Mozart Players' first associate composer. They're in for a treat.

As for the movie...well, I didn't go because I don't get on with that kindathang. But it was nice to see the title of our piece plastered all over the walls at Bond Street Station.

Meanwhile it's turned out there's still another Let Me In! Here it is...

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

A Farewell to Fodor

The news has just reached me (via Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc) that the violinist Eugene Fodor has died, aged 60. He claimed to be Heifetz's last disciple, though some others say he wasn't. He also had the more dubious accolade of being my weirdest-ever interviewee.

I met Eugene in spring 1994. At that time I was in crisis after the death of my mother that February and to get myself through I'd taken up a yoga and meditation system that involved vegetarianism, ashrams, a guru and so forth. Eugene was in town to play at the Wigmore Hall and The Strad wanted an interview, so I went up to Muswell Hill to talk to him. About ten minutes into the interview, some of his remarks began to ring bells: he practised yoga and meditation, he said, but it wasn't a religious thing, just a spiritual one that enhanced the &c&c&c. It turned out, of course, that we were doing the same method, had the same guru... and along came the Sanskrit passwords and greeting, after which we were supposed to be best buddies. He turned up that week at the Thursday evening central London "satsang" and kindly offered anyone there who wanted to go free tickets for his Wigmore recital (somewhat to the consternation of his concert manager, I think).

During the interview he talked a lot, very movingly, about Heifetz, the Tchaikovsky Competition and why violin playing is a form of mysticism; we discussed technique and he showed me a trick he had of putting resin on the fingertips of his bowing hand to enhance control (this didn't go into the article). He said nevertheless that were I to ask any questions about the allegations of substance abuse or his arrest, he'd stop the interview there and then. So we talked violin. I wrote an article that eventually was entitled "Fodor's Guide to Violin Playing", which you can read on his website.

Six or eight of us from the meditation centre went along to the Wigmore. The Strad, meanwhile, had asked me to review the recital. Fodor's technique was dazzling indeed in the showpieces; with a powerful sound and remarkable security, he inspired much enthusiasm in a very impressed hall. But the Brahms sonata was deeply uncomfortable, not least because he seemed to be at war with his pianist, who looked on the point of collapse. I congratulated him backstage, escaped home and wrote an honest review of what I'd witnessed.

A week or two later I was staying with my father when the phone rings and there's Eugene. The magazine had a new editor who, for reasons that escape me, had agreed to fax my unpublished review to the artist when said artist requested it. Eugene wasn't too happy. So he had written another one. Couldn't we run that instead? Probably not, I said. He faxed it through. To say that the writing was not my style would have been putting it a bit mildly. And for some reason I didn't much like the notion of putting my name to a non-review of a concert written by the performer himself, even if we did both have the same guru and Sanskrit greeting. The contrite editor was on my side and my review appeared as written. Eugene rang again. Dad told him I was out. Not long afterwards I looked at his website. There upon it was his own review of his own London recital. (It isn't there now.)

I didn't go back to the meditation centre. It was revealed, not long afterwards, to be a very dubious organisation indeed, so Mr Fodor had done me a great favour. A strange man, but a wonderful violinist. I shall never forget him.

Butterflitting...

I was at the opening night of Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall - here's my review from today's Independent. Thoughts about the whys and wherefores of this are butterflitting about. This very popular in-the-round and sung-in-English production has a job to do and it does this very well. The singing was pretty damn good. David Freeman brings out some acute psychological detail that enhances the drama, too. But there was so much that got up my nose: the amplification, the dragging pace, the way that the setting just swallows the silken embroidery of the score's detail, and I have a job to do too, so I have to say so.

And yet... I took along my niece, who'd never heard it before, and she was entranced.  The thing is sold out and they've scheduled extra performances. It's a chance for thousands of people to discover Butterfly in a (supposedly) user-friendly place, sung in the vernacular (even if you can't hear many of the words) and in a production that doesn't muck around with concepts but just tells the story, which is quite enough on its own, thanks. This is all a Very Good Thing. So I feel extremely churlish about grumbling. But I know the score well, I love the opera to pieces and this is the only time I haven't had to get out my hanky at the end. Which means it doesn't deliver enough.

What do you think? Am I being fair?